Industry Market Trends

How Prize Competitions Can Re-engineer STEM's Image and the Talent Pipeline

Apr 01, 2013


Credit: David Castillo Dominici at Credit: David Castillo Dominici at

To produce more engineers, scientists, and other high-tech professionals requires, among other things, a rebranding of STEM that shows the importance of these fields to human progress. And as both the number and variety of solutions broaden, stakeholders are creatively engaging tomorrow's STEM workforce by turning science into a sport. Science competitions can recapture the public's imagination and engage student competitors in hands-on work and real-world practice that inspire them to pursue STEM careers.

Beyond their obvious benefits -- financial rewards for the winning participants and scientific breakthroughs -- these types of initiatives can create a positive mainstream image by showcasing STEM and the society-impacting applications of these disciplines and infuse a pipeline of future STEM talent by engaging youth with fun experiences associated with science.

Public Awareness

Among today's STEM challenges is a lack of awareness. The American Council for Technology (ACT) - Industry Advisory Council (IAC), a nonprofit, public-private partnership dedicated to improving government through IT, refers to the U.S. workforce shortage in STEM fields as a "silent national crisis."

In a 2012 paper, Educating our Workforce for Today's Jobs in Science and Technology, the ACT-IAC noted that while many Americans believe the U.S. is still a world leader in STEM fields, the nation is trending in the opposite direction. "We are quietly slipping further and further behind because we have not developed a culture that prioritizes STEM," the ACT-IAC report stated.

Due partly to culturally prescribed stereotypes and an outdated public perception of engineers and scientists, youth are rarely enticed to understand and pursue occupations in STEM fields. In a late-2011 survey of teenagers, conducted by Intel and nonprofit Change the Equation, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they never considered a career in engineering. Based on the findings, "a lack of familiarity with engineering is a significant barrier to getting teens to pursue the career," the surveyors wrote.

"Engineering falls to the bottom half of professions with which teens are familiar," an announcement of Intel and Change the Equation's findings stated. "Almost one-third (29 percent) of teens do not know of potential job opportunities in engineering, and 13 percent do not think that majoring in engineering in college will lead to any more job opportunities than any other major." Significantly, 20 percent of teens have no idea about engineering's impact on the world.

Active Engagement

Major prize competitions can help raise voice for STEM, such as the various automotive, lunar, and genomic X PRIZES in recent years. But incentivized competitions have a long history of spurring innovation, such as a series of cash prizes offered by Britain in 1714 for determining a ship's longitude at sea.

Then consider the Orteig Prize: In 1919, hotelier Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Eight years later, Charles Lindbergh won the prize and became a worldwide sensation.

"A quarter of all Americans personally saw Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis within a year of his flight -- and the world changed with their excitement," the X PRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit institute that designs and oversees public competitions for humanity-impacting issues, explains on its website.

The X PRIZE Foundation, perhaps the most prominent prize provider, notes that U.S. pilot license applications soared in 1927, as did the number of both licensed aircraft and airline passengers in the U.S.

"The cause of the tremendous growth in aviation experienced after 1927 was not due to a technology breakthrough. Lindbergh employed technology that was available years earlier," the foundation continues. "The growth was a direct result of a monumental change in the public's expectation about flight. Lindbergh's flight created the expectation that anyone could fly."

Jennine Dwyer of X PRIZE Foundation provides sponsorship services at the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE. Credit: X PRIZE Foundation Jennine Dwyer of X PRIZE Foundation provides sponsorship services at the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE. Credit: X PRIZE Foundation

While the majority of teens surveyed by Intel and Change the Equation did not consider a career in engineering, approximately 74 percent of those that did said so because they think it would be interesting, and perhaps because they are more aware of the impact engineers have on the world. When teens were given real-world examples, they became interested.

"We need to offer teens real-world, hands-on engineering experience and interaction with engineers, like that found in robotics programs and science competitions, to improve the likelihood that they'll get hooked on the subject and pursue it in college," said Intel CIO Diane Bryant.

Prize competitions recognize and reward bright, technically minded students for innovation, engaging their STEM skills.

FIRST Robotics, for example, engages and motivates young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology, and engineering through its international high school robotics competition that gives students real-world, hands-on opportunities. In 1992, Segway inventor Dean Kamen started the FIRST Robotics Competition, and since then, hundreds of thousands of participating students have designed their own robots.

The students who compete in the FIRST competition might one day develop the game-changing innovations that propel the economy. According to a Brandeis University study in 2005, students who competed in FIRST during high school were about 10 times likelier than other students of similar backgrounds to have an internship or apprenticeship during their freshman year of college and were more than twice as likely to pursue a career in science or technology. By their own accounts, FIRST participants said the competition helped them experience the world of science and technology in a way that expanded their interest in the field.

FIRST isn't the only organization offering such competitions.

In 2012, the Aerospace Industries Association's aerospace-specific national STEM competition, the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), completed its 10th year of inspiring and attracting the next generation of engineers and technicians to the aerospace industry. Both middle and high school students take part in designing, building, and flying rockets. Over the past decade, the competition has reached more than 55,000 students, and in 2012 alone, it involved more than 3,000 students in 48 states.

Based on a recent survey of TARC alumni, 81 percent of past participants plan to pursue careers in STEM fields. Seven out of 10 past participants said they are at least "somewhat likely" to pursue a career in aeronautic or aerospace engineering.

"[M]ore than 95 percent of students who participate in the program go on to college and nine in 10 say they would encourage a friend to study STEM in college," U.S. News and World Report reported of the TARC competition last year. "So far, TARC alumni have gone on to work at Raytheon, Virgin Galactic, and other aerospace engineering companies."

The FIRST and TARC competitions represent just two of the many STEM competitions that exist, as many other private, state, and local organizations have them as well.

In 2009, President Barack Obama launched the Educate to Innovate initiative to raise the participation and performance of students in STEM. Today, federal agencies such as NASA are engaging students through competitions in schools that are pioneering crucial educational platforms.

These prize competitions could help meet the president's vision of developing creative approaches to spark and improve student interest and achievement in STEM. The ultimate reward of such competitions is a deeper, stronger well of engaged STEM talent for future U.S. innovation.